Does the Department of Defense Unjustly Allocate Advertising Funds?

Short answer: probably, but it’s hard to prove!

Ryan Murtha
Nov 8 · 11 min read

In November 2015, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake published a report titled, Tackling Paid Patriotism: A Joint Oversight Report. It detailed how the Department of Defense had signed marketing contracts with professional sports teams worth millions of dollars annually. These contracts gave the military the ability to perform public relations stunts at sporting events in front of a captive audience of tens of thousands of people. These stunts included on-field swearings in, national anthem performances, military fly-overs, color guards, and other self-congratulatory practices by the military. In total, the Department of Defense spent a self-reported $53 million on advertising at sporting events from 2012 and 2015.

As the report states, “Some of what was contracted appears to be legitimate marketing and advertising activities for which we would expect DoD to compensate these teams, such as stadium signs, social media mentions, and booth space for recruiters at games.” Additionally, the report recognizes the importance of such campaigns “to gain access to potential recruits or community influencers like coaches, teachers, counselors and administrators.” But many of the contracts looked at by the senators were much less above-board in their intent. Passed off as a patriotic act by the sports franchise in question, these actions were really more a star-spangled marketing scheme with no disclaimer that they were actually taxpayer funded exhibitions.

Here, TBP will investigate whether any of those illegitimately used funds were spent in a way that targets the most vulnerable sections of society: the poor, people of color, the young, the undereducated, and those otherwise disenfranchised. This article might be significant for two reasons: subject matter and method. The former should be self-apparent, and continues a debate that goes back to when the Armed Forces shifted to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) under President Nixon, surrounding the ethics of marketing serving in the Armed Forces the same way you would any other product. As Gates Commission member and DuPont President Crawford Greenwalt said, “There is something immoral in seducing people to die for their country.” It seems especially unjust to put this risky burden inordinately on the members of society that are already the most vulnerable. Secondly, this article addresses an issue that has not received enough attention from sports critics. In fact, though others have been written on the practice of military advertising, and they will be discussed later, this article will be one of the first to use regression analysis to look at Armed Forces advertising strategy.

The goal here is to look at how these funds were allocated to see if this guerilla marketing campaign was in any way targeted at any of America’s more vulnerable populations. This idea came from noticing that the largest contract reported, one for $879,000, was with the Atlanta Falcons, a franchise located in a city notable both for its large black population and large impoverished communities.

“There is something immoral in seducing people to die for their country.”

— Crawford Greenwalt

It is an established fact that the Armed Forces have in the past used targeted advertisements to reach the section of the population they most need, 16–21 year-old men. In 1988, the Army put together a report on the media habits of this demographic, using thousands of phone interviews to capture what television shows were most popular among young men, and how that changed based off of race and whether or not they graduated from high school or college. Statistically significant differences were found between them, and the authors believed that the paper could “contribute to the selection of programs for the Army’s minority recruitment advertising efforts.”

There is not yet an extensive field of research on this topic, but the subject of targeted advertisements by the Armed Forces has been the subject of some academic scrutiny, mostly at the dissertation level. As one of those papers wrote, “There is a startling lack of research on the effects of military advertising, which is unsettling when considering the substantial amount of money and resources dedicated to creating advertising campaigns.” Most available research comes from the marketing and communications fields, looking at how the Army’s message has shifted from one ad campaign to the next. One article, a dissertation from within the Army War College itself, looked at US Army branding in comparison to how traditional firms like IBM, Coca-Cola, or Harley-Davidson brand themselves. It concluded in glowing terms that the branding and advertising campaigns that the Army ran were every bit as sophisticated as other corporations. It noted how one successful campaign had, in 2001, caused toll-free calls to Army recruiters to increase “70% over the same week the previous year, and Web site visits 547% compared to the same week the prior year (2000) and an unbelievable 964% from 1999. Though the article does not explicitly mention race or socioeconomic factors of the recipients of these marketing messages, it does touch on the subject in code, saying “Just as soldiers wouldn’t take the hill without a battle plan, strategic leaders need a plan that focuses specific messages toward specific audiences (cultural elites, those who are rationally ignorant, etc.) to achieve desired results.” This suggests the author considered it important that the US Army keep those factors in mind when designing marketing and branding campaigns.

Another study, this one in 2011, compared the previous three big Army recruiting campaigns that had arisen since the shift from a draft system to an All-Volunteer Force. These were the “Be All You Can Be” campaign that aired during the 1980s and 1990s, the “Army of One” campaign that started in the early 2000s, and the current “Army Strong” campaign. The study found that in each sequential marketing campaign, black soldiers were not only portrayed more often, but more positively as well. Black members of the military are featured twice as often in the “Army Strong” campaign as they are in the earlier “Army of One” campaign, and 44% of the appearances of black soldiers “show an African American man featured in his own shot, or receiving or displaying some kind of honor,” a radical departure from their invariably anonymous and secondary role in the previous two campaigns.

A third study, this one the most recent from 2012, illuminates the history of Army marketing. During the shift to an All-Volunteer Force, the Army first realized they would have to advertise for the first time, a new concept for them. Their research “determined the majority of enlistees would be from rural areas and low socio-economic backgrounds, in addition to being less educated and young.” Because this demographic also spent a relatively large amount of time in front of the television, it was decided that was the form the advertisements would take. The study goes on to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of different branches of the military advertising both separately and together. Finally, it looks at how military commercials impact people’s “war attitude.” The study concluded that “controlling for other demographic factors, political cynicism, weekly news media consumption, and gender were significant determinants of war attitudes.” Additionally, political orientation turned out to be “also statistically significant and individuals affiliated with the Republican Party had a .31 more positive attitude regarding war on a scale of 5.” The study conversely concluded that increasing the volume of advertising did in fact significantly increase negative attitudes about war in college students.

According to data published by the Armed Forces, putting more emphasis on blacks and African Americans in recruiting campaigns seems to be paying dividends. Whereas they make up 12.85% of the nation’s population as a whole according to the 2010 census, as of the year 2013 they accounted for 18.5% of the men enlisted in the Armed Forces. In the Army, blacks and African Americans make up a whopping 22.8% of the enlisted soldiers, overrepresented by almost double. They are overrepresented in the Armed Forces Reserve as well, making up 15.8% of the members.

Because of the success of targeting black and African Americans, I believe it is likely that the Department of Defense would systematically choose which sports teams to advertise with based off the demographics of their fan bases, targeting those they believe would be more likely to enlist. To investigate this, I looked at the 33 cities that had sports teams with relevant marketing contracts per Tackling Paid Patriotism (regardless of how many contracts each city had). The total amount of money invested by the Department of Defense in that city was the dependent variable (Total). Independent variables are outlines below, with the relationship (+ or -) that I expect them to have with the dependent variable. ANOVA multiple linear regression will then be used to test for the significance of the model and the probability of using it to either accept or reject to stated hypothesis.

PercentBlack (+) — the percent of the city’s population that registered as ‘Black or African American’ in the 2010 Census. As outlined above, racial minorities have increasingly been targeted in Armed Forces advertisements.

PO (+) — a dummy variable for the political orientation of the fan base, using the party of the governor as a guide [0=democratic, 1=republican]. As past studies show, Republicans on average have more positive attitudes towards war.

MedInc (-) — median income of the city. Armed Forces advertisers have stated that they put more emphasis on appealing to those of lower socioeconomic status.

MeanAge (-) — average age of the city’s populace. The demographic most attractive to the Armed Forces would be those of prime enlistment age, from 16 to 21. Thus, they would be more likely to advertise in cities with a younger citizenry.

TotalPop (+) — total population of the city. More inputs at any yield rate would mean more yield.

TotalBlack (+) — PercentBlack x TotalPop. The total number of black and African Americans in a city. As seen above, Armed Forces have been going the extra mile to appeal to men of color.

Stadium (+) — the sum of the capacities of each stadium in a city that had a contract with the Department of Defense. This has the same reasoning for significance as TotalPop.

The original model is as follows:


Other models attempted include:




Total~β₁+ β₂Stadium

As it turns out, the best model to predict Department of Defense spending in any given stadium is simply Total~β₁+ β₂Stadium. The original working model proved disappointing, with an r-square value of .0843 and an F-value of .4601.None of the independent variables proved to be significant by any measure, with p-values ranging from .2429 to .8543, and the t-stat results being similarly disappointing, with none greater than the critical value. Different regression models were run substituting PercentBlack for TotalBlack, removing the political dummy, using a ‘percent of population under 24’ variable instead of MeanAge, and adding impendent variables to measure both high school and college graduation rates. But the only independent variable that showed significance was Stadium. After removing all the insignificant variables, what was left was the above model. Adjusted r-square was .3836, p-value was .00001, and the t-stat was 4.4, higher than the critical value of 2.0452. This means the model explains 38.36% of the variation in Total. The coefficient was 5.531, meaning that for every seat increase in a stadium, one could expect an additional $5.53 to be spent by the Department of Defense advertising there.

Though the results of this study were not as anticipated, there are many shortcomings that could be addressed before throwing out the idea entirely. First, it was taken as a given here that Ordinary Least Squares was the best linear unbiased estimator for this data. It could be helpful to check that the Gauss Markov theorem is not being violated and that that is true. Second, as is stated in Tackling Paid Patriotism, only 77 of the 122 contracts that the Department of Defense had with various sports franchises were reported to the investigators. This means that we are more or less operating with an incomplete data set, whereas a complete one could potentially yield a much higher level of significance. Last, I am skeptical if the independent variables I chose presented an accurate snapshot of the target audience for the marketing stunts. All military promotions were in-stadium events, and most likely were not fully featured on the television broadcast. Obviously the people that buy tickets to a game are not always representative of the city at large, as many fans come from the surrounding suburbs, which can have significantly different demographics, politically, racially, and financially, than the city itself. To capture more accurate demographics on those actually attending sporting events, one may have to get information directly from the franchises themselves, and I am skeptical how willing they would be to share it. Finally, this study took it as a given that gender distribution in each of the 33 cities and their related fan bases studied was equal. Though that is most likely true, even small variations in gender distribution in different cities’ fan bases and sports could have had an impact on how the Department of Defense chose to allocate their marketing budget, seeing as they have historically had a much harder time filling their quota of men than they have had for women.

Though the regressions did not show it, there is still evidence to support the hypothesis that the Department of Defense’s advertising dollars were strategically spent. Investment in Major League Baseball teams totaled $899,095, while that number for NBA teams was $708,666, $1,040,500 for the NHL, and $396,500 for MLS. What makes these numbers interesting is you look at them on an ‘investment per game’ level, with 41 home dates per team in the NBA and NHL, 17 per team in MLS, and 81 per team in the MLB. This then gives us $23,323 per MLS match, $25,378 per hockey game, $17,284 per basketball game, and a measly $11,099 per nine innings of baseball. This lines up with fan demographics that show that the baseball fan base is by far the oldest, with both the largest percentage of its fans being age 50+ (43.1%) among North American professional sports. It is consistent then with the hypothesis of this paper that less funding is directed its way compared to sports with younger audiences. Additionally, the soccer and hockey fan bases are by far the youngest, and receive markedly more advertising dollars directed their way than do the other two sports. I believe this to be evidence enough that the Department of Defense was spending their dollars with more intent than they led Senators McCain and Flake to believe, and I think offers more than enough reason to give this data a second look.

Talkin' Bout Praxis

Sports, Theory, and Maybe Other Stuff

Ryan Murtha

Written by

Philadelphia expat

Talkin' Bout Praxis

Sports, Theory, and Maybe Other Stuff

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